Before we traveled to Cuba, everyone asked the same question: “Can you bring me some cigars?” (Answer: I’ll try.) Upon returning, everyone is asking “Do people really drive those classic cars?” (Answer: Yes.)
I’m actually giving short shrift to a complex set of issues with my second answer. The truth (as shown in these photos I took while wandering the streets of Havana) is that classic cars are everywhere and are the primary vehicles on the road. Any family that owned a vehicle prior to the Revolution that culminated in the overthrow of Batista in January 1959 appears to have done anything they can to maintain those vehicles. The U.S. embargo made obtaining new vehicles nearly impossible, but having a car is important not only for transportation but also status (just as it is throughout the world.)
And, while I lamented the lack of Cuban innovation in my last post, necessity has made engineering geniuses out of the Cubans who’ve managed to keep 60-year-old vehicles running by scavenging spare parts from other makes and motors (even lawnmowers!)
Broadly speaking, one of the appeals of modern Cuba to an outsider is the sense that you can witness peak design in action. Have there ever been more beautiful cars than those created by the U.S. design studios in the 1950’s? Forget functionality, mileage and safety: These rockets were beautiful. They reflected our space obsessions and inspired generations of designers to aspire to create things of beauty. Is it any wonder that visionary designers at Tesla, Google and even Apple are all turning to cars to fuel their ambitions?
It’s also worth noting the fantastic architecture (see a few representative photos). It’s hard to imagine that these designs were in any way practical but they are striking. Wouldn’t it be cool if the next iteration of Cuban design leaped right from the ‘50’s to the 2020’s and skipped all the cookie-cutter boredom of the intervening years?
Finally, for anyone who wants to read an expanded journalistic version of my last post, I would highly recommend the April 6th issue of Time magazine, which devoted its cover story to Cuba and did a wonderful job of covering the impending arrival of hordes of American tourists.
That article contained an hopeful quote from a senior government official who explained that the new Cuba will be based on elements of Capitalism but still be Cuban and insightfully offered:
Can we have some serious U.S. politicians embrace the same philosophy?